Dichotomy and perceptual distortions in absolute pitch ability



Absolute pitch (AP) is the rare ability to identify the pitch of a tone without the aid of a reference tone. Understanding both the nature and genesis of AP can provide insights into neuroplasticity in the auditory system. We explored factors that may influence the accuracy of pitch perception in AP subjects both during the development of the trait and in later age. We used a Web-based survey and a pitch-labeling test to collect perceptual data from 2,213 individuals, 981 (44%) of whom proved to have extraordinary pitch-naming ability. The bimodal distribution in pitch-naming ability signifies AP as a distinct perceptual trait, with possible implications for its genetic basis. The wealth of these data has allowed us to uncover unsuspected note-naming irregularities suggestive of a ”perceptual magnet” centered at the note ”A.” In addition, we document a gradual decline in pitch-naming accuracy with age, characterized by a perceptual shift in the ”sharp” direction. These findings speak both to the process of acquisition of AP and to its stability.




The nature of absolute pitch (AP), also known as perfect pitch, lies outside the ken of most humans. It is an unusual perceptual gift, rigorously defined as the ability to name the pitch of a tone without the use of a reference tone. AP is distinguishable from relative pitch, a skill common in trained musicians, in which a pitch is rapidly derived by calculation of its interval from a reference pitch. AP can be loosely regarded as the musical equivalent of color labeling of visual frequencies, an ability common in humans.


PDF – PNAS-2007-Athos-14795-800

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